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  • James Stewart

The Art of the Landscape


Modern landscape painting, like Still Life, is a genre that has developed over the last few hundred years as artists have been able to decide for themselves what to paint for their patrons and collectors. Prior to this artists were obliged to paint figurative religious or wealthy family portraits or scenes from famous events/battles.

See "The Entry into Jerusalem" by Giotto (c 1305) now in Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy.

It was not until the 15th century when, mainly Flemish, painters started to depict realistic landscapes as backgrounds to their portrait paintings.

Some artists such as Da Vinci, Durer and Titian did paint landscapes in the 16th & 17th centuries but this was rare.

See the example by Nicolas Poussin (c 1605) now in the Prado, Madrid.

Landscapes for their own sake

The real change, during the 18th century, coincided with the move from the artisan studios producing works to order to painters creating works for exhibition and sale. In 1768 The Royal Academy of Arts was founded through a personal act of King George III to promote the arts of design in Britain through education, exhibition and debate. The motivation was twofold: firstly to raise the professional status of the artist by establishing appropriate standards in training, and secondly to arrange the exhibition of contemporary works to foster the appreciation of art generally with the public at large.

Today this is still done through their annual Summer Exhibition, and other "block buster" exhibitions (see Ai Weiwei for example). The Tate and other large museums have taken on the role of exhibition and education for the public, and locally to us at Zimmer Stewart Gallery we are lucky to have Pallant House Gallery.

See "Sir John Nelthorpe, 6th Baronet Out Shooting with his Dogs in Barton Field, Lincolnshire" 1776 by George Stubbs.

In England the backgrounds to portraits showing parks or estates of the landed gentry gave way to pastoral scenes by Stubbs, as Poussin did earlier, and later in the 19th century by John Constable, JMW Turner and Samuel Palmer. 

It has to be said though that even these artists found it hard to get established in an art market that still had a preference for historical scenes and portraits.

The driving force in England seemed to be the appreciation of the countryside for itself at a time of industrialisation and increasing urbanisation - "myopic nostalgia" [as it was described by Frances Spalding in "British Landscape Painting 1850-1950]. This of course coincided in the mid-19th century with the Pre-Raphaelites, founded by Hunt, Millais and Rosetti, to study and express nature and subsequently the Arts and Crafts movement, a reaction to mass production, spearheaded by William Morris, Augustus Pugin and the writer John Ruskin.

Landscapes in other countries 

In France the landscape movement gave way to Impressionism, as Arts and Crafts became "Art Nouveau". As Cezanne famously said "I have not tried to reproduce nature: I have represented it" [source Herbert Read in Art Now]

See Mont Sainte Victoire, painted many times by Paul Cezanne

In the United States, the Hudson River School, at this time, created enormous works capturing the magnificent scenes they saw across across the vast open, largely unspoilt country. This School was founded by Thomas Cole who took a steamship up the Hudson River, then hiked up the Catskill mountains to paint the first landscapes of the area.

See "River in the Catskills" by Thomas Cole, 1843 by Thomas Cole, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Modern Landscape

As the landscape genre became acceptable to collectors and critics, artists were free to experiment with light, composition and realism vs impressionism. All of which at the turn of the 20th century, along with wars, depression and other social factors gave us an explosion in art movements and manifestos (cubism, dada, fauvism and eventually pure abstraction).

Roger Fry, artist and critic, wrote about the artists' creative vision in 1920 (Vision and Design, published by Chatto & Windus) "It demands the most complete detachment from any meanings and implications of appearances" he continues "Certain relations of directions of line become for him full of meaning...similarly colours, which in nature have almost always a certain vagueness, and elusiveness, become so definite and clear to him, owing to their now necessary relation to other colours, that if he chooses to paint them he can state them positively and definitely".

See "Sussex Landscape" by Duncan Grant, 1920 now in the Tate Collection.

After WWI in the UK there was a return to representation in landscape painting by artists such as Bell and Grant at Charlston, and Ben and Winifred Nicholson in St Ives (amongst others.

The Contemporary Landscape

Later of course artists such as Sutherland, Vaughan, Lanyon, Hitchens introduced abstraction into their landscapes inviting a post WWI explosion in abstraction and abstract expressionism by Sir Terry Frost, RA whose centenary exhibitions in Leeds, Leamington Spa, Newlyn this year are a testament to the six decades during which he pushed the boundaries of abstraction in landscape painting. See his Spiral painting series based on a trip to Arizona. 

See "Green and Orange Spirals" pictured and available to view at Zimmer Stewart Gallery now.

Zimmer Stewart Gallery regularly exhibit landscape paintings by a range of emerging as well as established living artist, who in their own way are exemplars in contemporary landscape painting.

See "Huts at the Witterings", 2015 by Katharine Le Hardy

Katharine Le Hardy studied at Bristol before settling in London. She paints semi-abstract landscapes with impasto confident brushstrokes to engage the viewer and charge the composition with movement and dynamism.

See also the works of Nick Bodimeade, Matt Bodimeade, Phil Tyler and Tom Farthing, all on our Artists page.


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